If you asked me right now how many juniors are set to appear in this year’s Secret U.S. Classic, I’d guess roughly a million.
The Gymternet has profiled every junior elite competing in the actual junior session of the event, and I think we were somewhere around 40 at last count (though that group has dwindled considerably over the past week, as weirdly high number of them have succumbed to injuries). But because a group of the top juniors age-eligible for the 2016 Olympic Games are competing in the senior session, we still have a whole group left we haven’t even touched on.
The “senior juniors,” as I like to call them, will still have their scores count as juniors. How does that work? The juniors all compete in their afternoon session, but no title winners are announced. The early session juniors must wait for the senior session juniors to compete in order to find out where they stand. It’ll be a long, nail-biter of a day, especially for those top-performing early session juniors like Jordan Chiles and Alexis Vasquez, both of whom could factor into the podium standings.
With the absence of 2013 U.S. junior national champion Bailie Key – the favorite for this year’s junior U.S. Classic title who withdrew last week due to a “minor arm procedure” – the top spot on the podium has opened for someone else to claim. Key’s 2014 Pacific Rim Championship teammates Nia Dennis and Norah Flatley seem most likely to succeed, as they’re the most experienced and have consistently earned some of the highest junior all-around scores over the past year.
Dennis, who trains at Buckeye Gymnastics now alongside 2012 Olympian Gabby Douglas, has the advantage in my opinion, if only because her difficulty’s a little bit higher and because her skill set is consistently at the same level from event to event. Most recently, Dennis earned a high 57.9 for her performance at Pac Rims, where she showed an incredible DTY, a brilliant floor routine, and clean exercises on bars and beam.
Known mostly for the tremendous height she gets on everything she competes – from her Tkatchevs that sail over the high bar to her standing arabians on beam that are fully rotated a full second before her feet touch down again – Dennis is exciting to watch, though part of this excitement sometimes stems from the fact that you don’t know if she’ll hit or miss. She seems to have gotten this under control between last summer and now, but the element of risk is always there; while she has probably the most potential in this all-around contest, the title is by no means a lock.
Flatley, on the other hand, definitely has quite a bit of difficulty, but really only on the events she’s strongest on – bars and beam. Especially beam. Her beam should be killer; not only is she competing outrageous skills and combinations, she’s doing them impeccably. Superb technique doesn’t just happen on her best events, however; while her vault and floor start values were only around 5.0-5.2 last time she competed, her execution scores on both were through the roof, making her a bit like Kyla Ross in that sense. You know we won’t see her upgrade there – or anywhere – until she and coach Liang Chow know she can execute her new skills perfectly.
Another big name in this session is Ragan Smith. Smith placed 17th at last year’s U.S. Championships, but made a gym change shortly, moving to Texas Dreams to train with Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, Chris Burdette, and the infamous Dream Team. She was added to the national team at the ranch in order to be given a spot on the junior team for the Jesolo Trophy, and though her performance there was somewhat sub-par after falls on bars and floor, it was clear she had improved a lot, including an upgrade from an FTY to a DTY in addition to adding four tenths to her beam difficulty. I’m not sure if she’ll be able to contend for a medal position, but I do think she will qualify among the top of the pack.
Actually, aside from Dennis and Flatley – whom I’m pretty sure will be the two to contend for gold and silver – I’m not sure who will reach the podium. Perhaps Emily Gaskins with her brilliant execution on floor and lovely lines on bars? Jazmyn Foberg, the latest MG Elite prodigy to raise her all-around potential by about five or six full points in a single year since Laurie Hernandez did it between 2012 and 2013?
And don’t forget about Jordan Chiles. Chiles isn’t competing in the senior session because she’s too young to go to Rio, but she’s one of the strongest junior all-arounders in the U.S. at the moment who, like Smith, was added to the national team earlier this year when she earned a spot on the Jesolo team.
Finally, there are three “senior juniors” whose potential I know very little about. There’s Gliders girl Lauren Navarro, who placed 19th at last year’s U.S. Nationals, and then Twin City Twisters teammates Abby Paulson, 23rd last year, and Olivia Trautman, 8th at the U.S. Challenge last year. According to rumors, these three have upgraded a great since we last saw them compete elite a year ago. I don’t know if we can consider them podium threats, but I am excited to see what they’ve added to their skill sets.
The junior session at the 2014 Secret U.S. Classic will begin at 2 pm EST with the seniors – and the senior juniors – competing at 7:30 pm EST.